When my son was born 20 years ago, I became very afraid of flying on air planes. It was not just a case of the jitters but more like curl-up-in-a-ball-and-miss-your- flight terror. While it is certainly possible to live a happy, fulfilling life without getting on an airplane, I started to doubt that I was re ally living from a place of clarity with this fear looming in the background. There was something just so off about how it ruled my behavior and, about nine months ago, my dis comfort with its constriction was becoming unbearable.
I started looking very closely at this fear: noticing its texture and the very believable words that it told me. I noted the physical changes in my body that came up whenever someone spoke even generally about flying— sweaty palms, a twitch in my gut—and how those responses were immediately followed by a powerful narrative that contained both a certainty (that I would die) and pure fantastical speculation. Knowing that it all was born of a delusion—many delusions!—did not seem to lessen the power of this fear. At a certain point I realized that I had been holding on to a notion that there would be a silver bullet cure, some fact or technique that would instantly allow me to happily jet off to all those places that I had missed. Yet, as soon as I realized that I was holding on to this notion, I also realized that there would never be an instant cure. The belief that it could be magically and instantly transformed was just another layer of misunderstanding. The whole thing was a big, complicated mess and if I have learned anything from practice, it is that being in a state of clarity brings with it simplicity. I surely wasn’t there yet.
As a visual artist, I decided to use my skills to make a depiction of my fear—give her a persona so we might become acquaintances, maybe even friends. I altered a plush toy with ink and stitching until she conveyed a sense of my fear and then I sat her next to my home altar all summer. I did bows to her and she sat with me in the mornings. We developed a relationship. Around mid-summer, I set a goal to do a “practice flight” of a short distance. Then I planned to go to India, a direct flight lasting 15 hours. No longer believing that there would be an easy cure, I had to just be with my feelings. During my test flight and on the way to the airport for the flight to India, I was occasionally swept away by my fear but I noticed that I would always return to a calmer state. Seeing the fear as waves that rose and fell made the experience much more bearable. Some of the narrative could fall away and things became…simpler.
I am writing this from India so I managed to get here! I am in an ongoing relationship with this fear. Who knows, maybe one day we will part ways. Meanwhile, I treat her gently and with tenderness. She seems to need it.
—Robyn Ikyo Love
Some years ago now I realized the whole sangha was against me. People weren’t friendly, and I was sure they were talking behind my back. If I hadn’t come to the Temple in awhile, someone would invariably make an offhand comment to indicate that they’d been there more recently and I wasn’t committed enough to my practice. When I spilled my tea during oryoki I could almost hear the students around me snicker at my ineptitude.
There were Mountains and Rivers cliques that I wasn’t a part of, and could never be a part of. Certain groups of practitioners had a kind of “cool kids of the zendo” attitude, and I could tell they were kissing up to the teachers. All the students who were picked to be the shuso were from this group: the popular Zen students. I decided that I would never be a member of the ZMM in-crowd and I should stop even trying. I didn’t have the right commitment, the right composure, the right equanimity. The best thing was probably to move on to another Buddhist community where people weren’t so catty.
I decided to speak to my teacher about my feelings, and the fact that basically the entire sangha was excluding me from the practice. But even as I was explaining these thoughts they started to sound off to me. He was listening carefully and didn’t contradict my feelings, but asked me some more pointed questions. The thick cloud of decades-old resentment and hurt started to dissipate—and the vague shape of another possible reality glinted through the mist.
“I’ve turned this whole place into my high school.” He smiled. “Isn’t that crazy?” I whispered, reeling from my sudden clarity. He shook his head. I walked back into the zendo and suddenly everyone was just meditating.
—Katherine Jifu Jamieson
Today I live in a one-room studio efficiency apartment with bay windows. The story of how I found my new apartment says so much about how I have embodied the Dharma in my thirty-one years of contemplative practice.
My dwelling is very small. Yet, my building is clean, the management is friendly, and I live in a relatively safe neighborhood near a major university. Best of all, my building has an elevator. I am disabled and an elevator uplifts my daily life immeasurably
It was not always like this. My previous apartment was a five-floor walk-up without an elevator owned by a predatory landlord that refused much-needed repairs and steadily increased rents by hundreds of dollars to force out and harass low-to-middle income tenants.
Living in a building without an elevator was devastating. Not long ago I sustained a severe injury that exacerbated my lifelong struggles with mobility. As I learned how to walk again, I was forced to crawl up and down the steps daily on my hands and knees to get in and out of my former apartment.
I am a Black transgender upasika (ordained Theravadan lay devotee) with meager resources who grew up in and out of foster homes. Since I struck out on my own at the age of 14, I have struggled to find affordable housing. A 2017 study from Suffolk University Law School found that gender variant people of color like me experience severely high rates of housing discrimination. I searched for a new apartment in ads online. But, after I applied and paid application fees, the management of prospective buildings never responded to my emails or calls even after I successfully passed credit checks. This happened so many times that I went into further debt to cover application fees.
Then the spirit touched me. I shifted tac tics. Instead of looking at ads online, I made an alphabetical list of ten of the very best mid-income buildings with elevators in safe neighborhoods on a main bus line. Then I put on one set of the dark brown haiqing robes that were given to me in Thailand many years ago when I completed my upasika pro gram, and I walked into the office of the first building on the list and pleasantly asked if they had an apartment to let.
The manager told me that it had been many years since anyone that was not a student had actually walked into the office to inquire about a vacancy. He told me that he was an army veteran who had traveled the world and he recognized my Buddhist attire instantly. Then he showed me the small, clean efficiency within which I now reside, ran a credit check, and approved me to live in the build ing that same day. I learned a lot about Buddhist intention all over again. When I put on my robes, I said to myself: I belong every where just as I am.
Victimhood is so familiar and reflexive a response in me, it feels like it’s embroidered on my DNA. At 67, it’s a bit horrifying to recount the hours I’ve spent nursing wounds from perceived slights, real or otherwise, or having one-sided imaginary fights, mostly with people I love. Aggravated and aggrieved, I’m in no state to save anyone, least of all my self.
Zazen has helped me to see these psychic storms as something other than Standard Operating Procedure. If I am responsible for what I feel, how would it feel to no longer be at the mercy of this self-inflicted misery? I wonder too why I need so much defending? What would happen if I take the focus off myself?
The Precept, Recognize self and other as one; do not elevate the self and blame others, guides me through. It asks, Who is the other person? What are her struggles, her circumstances? The shift is not about information but about opening to the possibility of another person’s suffering, in this case someone who has hurt me. And almost always, invariably, just by taking up the inquiry, there comes a spacious ness, an inclusion that seems to take the sting away.
I still struggle; I get caught up. Sometimes it takes too long to remember the other. But over time the effort has made me quieter in side than I ever imagined I could be, and for that I am infinitely grateful to this practice.
—Sybil Seisui Rosen
Only don’t know. Over and over and over, I remind myself that I do not know, not with my thinking mind, not with my feeling heart. Every time I think I know, I look back minutes or days or months or years later and realize I didn’t see what I thought I saw, that I wasn’t as clear as I thought I was, that there was more going on than I realized at the time, that I could have trusted my inner voice more than I did, the voice beyond thinking and feeling that that guides me when I remember to slow down and listen. Usually I needed to be more patient than I was, take more responsibility than I did. Over and over and over, I remind myself that I must be stupid, that I must be curious, that I must ask questions.
When my son is upset, which happens a lot these days in his life divided between his mother and me, I do not truly know what is going on for him. I learn to sit with him, find patience and stability within the swirl of a 10 year-old’s emotional weather, to swim with his currents without being swept away, to be a stable within it all. I listen to his voice, his body, his face, my senses. I have to not know how to act. I have to not know what to say. I listen to the inner voice beyond thinking and feeling. I have to let go of every habit, every pose, every posture, every label, every role, every mask, every expectation, and just be there with him. I’m not very good at this. Sometimes it feels impossible when he is hurting so much and I do not know what needs to be done yet I know I can offer him something.
And years from now, I’ll look back and see again how little I knew.
—Andy Jikai Krieger
I have loved my sculpture studio, even at its most crowded, inefficient, and difficult to work with. It’s been my space. But like a long-term relationship, I’ve been feeling the need of a change, a way to work in it differently. Two months ago I carried every iota of material—drill press, band saw, old tools, rusted metal, fabrics, and boxes of curious debris—out of my studio in preparation for a construction project. I am excited about this project that will open the low-ceiling interior space to the roof rafters. But what I am most eager for is the blank canvas that awaits. In another month or two when construction is complete, I will have an empty space—no tools, no wood, no wax, no tables—a total reset.
A close friend who came in to see the progress asked about moving stuff back in, imagining the fun I would have arranging my new studio. But I’m not thinking about arranging anything, or moving any of my materials back in. I’m anticipating the experience of this new state of emptiness and my own creativity. I want to do something different, something that grows not from the materials, but from inside my heart. I want to feel the art coming from within my body—and I am looking for ward to sitting and feeling the empty studio in silence.
I know that this space can never be truly empty. I will carry the daily news will me: the dire situation of the unfathomable numbers of people displaced by frightening natural forces and horrendous human-caused tortures—their isolation, desperation, and need for help. I’ve lived my life believing that art can make the world more comprehensible, tolerable, sharable, and beautiful. I trust the Dharma and our practice. I am ready to see how sitting in this empty space will influence my art and what I can offer to the world.
—Linda Shinji Hoffman
I always thought it was important to be right. Moral absolutism was the air I breathed and my framing for life. When I ask myself where this started—my need to be right—I reflect on my suffering and the suffering of my parents as the place of insight. We were Black, immigrants, working class. With so many obstacles in our way because of our particular embodiments, I was taught to cling to the habit of being right to anchor myself in an uncertain world. Being right could save you from death itself. If you prayed hard enough, so this goes, you could pray away the plagues of structural racism, cruelty, economic un certainty, and sadness. If what you prayed for never came to be, you could suffer with dignity and moral authority that you had done the right thing. God was pleased, and this world view was intact. We were emphatically religious, and we had dreams of overcoming all our disappointments.
This is the God I accepted as my leverage against what I couldn’t explain. Still, a feel ing of sadness took hold of my spirit and I couldn’t shake it off. By my late 20s I was bewildered and exhausted, wondering why I had done all the right things and still came up so short. I had expected something grand to happen, and nothing happened at all. I was at a crucial moment of decision, something like the bird in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, facing the decision to freeze or to fly once it was set free from its cage.
In the haze of trying to get it right and stay on the right path, an inner voice emerged and whispered, “Be quiet.” My parents understood something about the mystery of life, because they always encouraged me to find stillness in prayer and meditation. I had experienced many times the power of prayer and the joy of simply communing with divine, but now I understood that prayer’s purpose was not to rescue me from uncertainty, or from change.
I’ve heard that prayer is for when you must ask, and meditation for when you must listen. Now, I was listening. In the quiet I learned that ‘being right’ is not always being true. I felt the tension in my lower back, the tightening of my chest suffocating my heart, the racing mind full of worry. I realized that I wasn’t equipped to do much of anything but take care of the very person needing attention the most, myself. My dreams of grandeur and achievement receded, and I met myself sitting on the cushion with an aching body, a restless mind, and a list of grievances. A wise teacher once told me, the wisdom’s in the wound. Rightness had been a form of protection, but it’s not what I need now. What I need now is to practice this: how can I come to accept my life?
I remember when I started practicing regularly at the Temple, I would ride my bike back to my apartment and lay down to cry. I watched myself strive to get what I thought would make me happy, only to see, with clearing eyes, that I would never get it and that even if I did, it would never make me truly content.
The hot spear of pain I would feel burning into me in those days, the pure heartache, feels like my first contact with reality. I had thought that I was a Disney princess at the beginning of the movie waiting for the romance, the castle, the prince, the joy, to come to me. It always felt just around the corner. Before I began to practice, when a relationship would fail, I would just pretend I had never wanted it in the first place. I next figured that if I became enlightened, then I would find the man of my dreams. That didn’t hold up too long. I then thought that if I saw clearly, I wouldn’t want anything anymore. This turned out also to not be right.
So how do I see the world I live in and my own desires clearly, their roots in my own life and in what I’ve been exposed to, and get to the heart of what I really want, without holding on to any particular outcome or leaving exactly where I am? I still find myself trying to force the results that I want, to force the people around me to conform to my fantasies. Even when I can see that I’m enmeshed in and feeding an incorrect view of the world—one in which if I get what I want I can finally relax—it can be difficult to let it go and to keep myself out of trouble.
The more that I am honest with what I’m seeing, the more that I can see and feel what my true intention is and the way that my Mara- mind is mangling it into something painful, the more I can soften, appreciate where I am and the current richness of my life.
—Shannon Shinko Hayes